With billions of searches happening every day on its platform and with over 65% share of the search market, Google requires you to pay attention to it. How the search engine works, what it looks for, and how it plans to evolve are all important factors in your understanding of the product, which will help you stay ahead of your competition.
By thinking like Google, you will not only learn what makes the world’s largest search engine tick, but you will also learn how to improve your site for higher rankings.
Download this cheat sheet to learn how to think like Google.
Before we get into that, you need to understand first how the search engine works:
How searches work
When you do a search, you may not realize that in the background, thousands of channels, programs and scripts are working to get you the answer within milliseconds.
Google has prepared a great interactive infographic that simplifies and explains how search works. Of course, many changes have been made to this formula over the years, especially because some sites try to game the system and artificially inflate key factors that Google looks at such as back links, domain age, and social marketing efforts.
Although no one but Google knows exactly what’s in each algorithm or even how many there are that make a site rank where it does, you can find some good information by looking at what Google has done previously.
It’s important to remember that Google is only as good as the service it provides. If people make billions of searches, but don’t find what they’re looking for, they’re far less likely to trust them or, even worse, use them again. So it’s in Google’s best interest to give people what they want.
Clues from the past
One way to tell where Google’s going is to look at where it has been. SEOmoz has a list of Google’s algorithm changes since 2000, in which they note all minor and major changes in the search engine’s indexing and ranking strategies. There are a few common threads that you’ll notice:
- Google is always trying to think one step ahead of spammers and scammers by identifying sites known to harbor malware and devaluing sites that use outdated techniques such as keyword stuffing, doorway pages and invisible text. This shows that you should avoid not just these tactics, but also other spammy tactics as they won’t last long. Any quick solution that you use to boost your rankings probably isn’t wise because Google’s history has shown that it won’t work forever.
- Google has always felt that content is king, but over the years people have tried to game the system by producing mediocre content. From fighting duplicate content to useless content, Google continues to promote content-rich sites that provide value to their readers. They eventually push down sites that don’t have great content. Your goal shouldn’t be to write tons of content, but instead your goal should be to focus on higher quality content as those pieces tend to gain more backlinks and rank higher throughout Google’s algorithm updates.
- Links have always been a huge part of rankings, and it seems that it will continue to be that way. Over time, webmasters have figured out how to build links, but the ones that are still hard to game are links from relevant authority sites. If you are planning on building links, go for quality and not quantity. As long as your links are relevant and are not keyword rich, you should do well in the long run. The concept of links is also changing… links from social media sites such as tweets can help. Co-citations may also help your rankings in the long run.
- When you’re serving billions of pages a day, there’s a clear focus on speed. Not only has Google’s index updated quicker with the introduction of updates such as Suggest and Caffeine, but site speed is a major factor that affects the relevancy and conversion rate of your site. Site speed is just one of 200+ known algorithmic factors that Google takes into account when ranking your site. If you want to boost your rankings, consider optimizing your load time. Just look at how I doubled my traffic by improving my load time.
Another way to keep your finger on the pulse of the search giant is to take a closer look at what it’s currently involved in. SEO by the Sea highlights interesting features and information from Google’s patent filings. From Google glasses to rich snippets, you can learn a lot about the future of Google from these posts.
Likes and Dislikes
I’ve already shared a few notable things that Google dislikes: spam (comment and otherwise), malware, duplicate content, low quality inbound links, a high number of outbound links and so forth. But what about what Google likes?
- Authoritative content – not just good content, but content with backlinks from relevant authority sites and reviews from peers. An easy way to build links to your content is to follow the steps in this blog post. Also, content that contains at least 2,000 words tends to rank higher than shorter content.
- Cornerstone content – this is information that serves as an often-linked-to resource from other sites. It’s content that doesn’t need to change often because it’s so complete and so relevant that it only needs minimal maintenance to stay that way. The Advanced Guide to SEO is a good example of this, and it will continually get more and more traffic each day as it is the most thorough guide to SEO online.
- Social signals – Google measures social networks differently and pays attention to diverse signals. Votes (likes), shares, posts and bookmarks are just a few of the criteria Google looks for. The more social shares your content gets, the higher you will rank. This is especially going to be more important as Google spends more time and money on Google Plus.
- Personalized experiences – a big trend Google is going after is personalizing their search and product experience to each user. From mobile devices, in which their investing billions of dollars, to personalized search, Google wants users to receive experiences tailored to their needs. If you can adapt your website to the needs of users, you are likely to rank higher in the long run. From using responsive design, to tailoring the experience based on history, like Yelp does, it’s all about offering a unique experience to each user.
If Google is so smart, why does _______ still work?
Your search engine ranking may be below the site’s that you know uses black hat and other underhanded techniques to rank where it does. This begs the question, if Google is so smart and advanced, why do some of these techniques still work?
The answer is because Google’s index is delicate. They don’t want to sandbox quality sites mistakenly or generate false-positives as they did when they declared the whole internet to be full of malware in 2009.
Google’s engineers are hard at work trying to figure out how to maintain a balance of quality results without the changes adversely affecting sites that have done nothing wrong. So, instead of stooping to your competitions’ level, use ethical white hat tactics and you will likely rank higher in the long run.
From what I’ve seen over the years, sites using unethical tactics may rank high for a few months, or even a year or two, but eventually they get caught. If you focus on producing high quality content and building legitimate links, you’ll eventually rank higher than the people who are taking the quick and easy route. I myself used to take the quick and easy route and ranked for terms like “web hosting” or even “online poker” really high, but eventually Google caught up to me and others and penalized us over time.
Slow and steady really does win the race in the game of “Google”.
Tools of the trade
Another way to get more insights about Google is to use the tools they provide. One of the most important ones to check out is Webmaster Tools. Here are some of the things Webmaster Tools can tell you, which should give you insights on how Google thinks:
- Page speed – Google used to have page speed data in Webmaster Tools. They now send you to their PageSpeed program, which shows you that they feel load time is important. The reason Google feels page speed being important is because they noticed a correlation between the speed with which a site loads and the frequency of Google use. When they rank sites that load slowly, people use Google less frequently.
- Errors – no search engine likes sending people to a site with errors. Google lists all the errors they find on your site that you should fix in Webmaster Tools.
- Search queries – if you are trying to figure out whether your traffic is going to go up or down, just look at how many search query impressions you receive. The more you get, the more traffic you should receive. So, if you make changes to your marketing strategy, and the number of impressions goes up, you should do more of it. If the number of impressions goes down, you should do less of it.
- Valuable content – through the use of sitemaps, Google will tell you how many pages they are indexing on your site. This should show you what the search giant thinks of your content. If they are indexing a lot of your content, they probably feel it is more valuable as opposed to having only very few pages indexed.
- Messages – my favorite feature in Webmaster Tools is the messages area. Google will tell you what they see wrong with your website, and this is where they will be sending you warnings as well.
If you want to get an understanding of where Google is going and how to adapt to their changes, it is essential that you use Webmaster Tools.
What’s next for the search giant?
Using the programs and services above as well as other features like Google+, you can get a good understanding of the direction in which Google is moving. Facebook has been slowly trying to take a bite out of Google’s market share by going after search and rolling out their own ad network, but Google continues to adapt and fight back.
You may look at Google Plus and consider it a nice, but failed, try on their part. But that’s only because you may be comparing it to Facebook in terms of popularity. Google Plus is becoming more and more integrated with the things we use every day, similar to Facebook’s universal login. Recently, they started promoting brands’ Plus pages and showcasing their +1 buttons as a way to encourage more companies to embrace Google Plus.
Beyond Google+, there’s also the Knowledge Graph, Google’s answer to Facebook’s long reach in the social sphere. The Knowledge Graph collects and connects the who, what, where, when and how of social search.
Combine this information with the social community and Google Maps and you get Google Now, a personal assistant for Android smart phones that hopes to “make you a local, anywhere” by giving you the right information at the right time. This includes sports scores from your favorite teams as they’re playing, the latest train schedule while you’re standing on the platform, and flight details from the moment you reach the gate. The more Google Now knows about you, the better its recommendations are.
The biggest take away from all of these changes is that Google is getting more personalized and not just from a localization standpoint. They are trying to show you different results from those that they would to your next-door neighbor. With all the information they are collecting about you, your friends, your likes, your location… they are trying to make your search experience more customized to you.
This means you need to adjust your strategy as a business. You can’t just go after head terms anymore. You need to start going after local search results and ideally adjust your content to be more relevant for each type of search a person may make.
The good news is that to think like Google, you don’t have to be an algorithm hawk, watching out for every little change. Instead, concentrate on giving your customers what they want: great, relevant content, shared through various social networks. Ask them to spread the word via their own friends and colleagues and make that information available through more than just a blog post. Obviously, it’s worth paying attention to algorithm updates as they may affect your site on some small level, but as long as you keep giving people what they want, you’ll inadvertently also be giving Google what it wants.
What are your thoughts on optimizing for Google? Have your site rankings been helped or hurt by recent updates?